Reconciliation with the Same Mindset Cannot Work. Here’s Why.
I have spent all 9 years of my professional career working with Canada’s Indigenous peoples. I want reconciliation to work. Here’s why I believe it cannot.
Since I began my career, I have focused exclusively on working with Indigenous communities in Canada. And nearly a decade into my career, I can say with confidence the mindset within government is fixated on a prescriptive notion of policies, programs and legislation created with little or no meaningful input from the very same communities these are to help. Despite this, I believe the solution governments should obsess over are creating a true, respectful partnership with communities. Reconciliation does not have to be complicated at all.
This is not to say that no government programs exist where a true partnership does: far too often, these programs (and its successes) are overshadowed by an umbrella strategy that fosters dependency on the government and an unwillingness to build trust.
But first, a history.
A History that I can never do justice.
Canada has a very deep history with Indigenous peoples: the quest for conversion and an erasing of traditional cultures, languages and ways of life was indeed a goal of the Crown for many decades after Canada became a country in 1867. Indigenous children were sent to schools as part of what was official government policy deemed “Aggressive Assimilation”: in doing so, many of Canada’s First Peoples had their children sent (or in many cases, removed) to schools that promoted Christian values and demonized Indigenous cultures and ways of life. Students faced punishment for speaking in traditional languages as well as mental and physical abuse, which in some cases lead to death.
And only recently has this past, specifically Residential Schools, been recognized by the federal government with a formal apology by former Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2008. Justin Trudeau’s government has committed to a renewed relationship with Canada’s Indigenous peoples, based on the recognition of rights, respect, co-operation and partnership. With this renewed focus, it would follow then, that reconciliation could happen: government openly recognizing this pervasive need to surrender control and for once, allow communities to determine their futures for themselves, embodying the spirit of the Two-Row Wampum. Instead, responses by the government to the Truth and Reconciliation’s Calls to Action actually opens the door for the government to exert more control on all things Indigenous-related.
Let me explain.
As part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action, the Report calls for funding to be earmarked for additional research on the legacies of residential schools. Various levels of government deemed that more robust information and data collection (e.g., tracking health outcomes, educational attainment levels) of Canada’s Indigenous peoples will further along proper policy and program development that in turn may be more relevant to the circumstances Indigenous peoples find themselves in.
Many communities however have viewed the research as ‘extractive’, solely benefiting the researcher without offering the community anything in return. In Donna Feir and Robert Hancock’s “A Guide to Reconciliation for Quantitative Social Scientists,” the authors note the following:
Some Indigenous scholars argue that ‘‘Indians are seen as subjects — or objects — of research’’ rather than as active participants in or beneficiaries of research.
As well, the interpretation of the data is critical: without community member involvement, social scientists are applying their own bias to understanding the facts and figures. And someone from the outside will prioritize what topics to study, assess results and determine what information is to be included and excluded. While the Commission does not refer nor define ethical research methods, governments must to further along reconciliation.
In my research however, I have not seen this to be the case: governments are more fixated with touting the amounts of funding and new initiatives being created. Developing ethics on research methods and data collection is important and without a fundamental understanding of what is happening with the data collection, reconciliation becomes more harder to attain. Trust is just too important.
Researchers stay in a community for a few weeks or a month, leave with all the data collected and the residents never hear back. What happens with the information provided? Where does it go, and will it be made available to the communities? And what about misinterpretations and misrepresentation of the data? What is the recourse for community members to take in these instances?
To combat this, I suggest researchers instead flip the script: absorb yourself into a community. Learn everything you can, talk to people eat the food, go to the community events. Listen more, talk less. Spend time near the water, in nature, on Pow Wow grounds if the community has it. Don’t lock your room door and stay on your laptop. In my experience, I have yet to visit a community where nobody wants to talk to you. Most people are friendly.
In 2016, the Government of Ontario released: The Journey Together: Ontario’s Commitment to Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples, which committed the Province under then-Premier Kathleen Wynne to $250M in new funding over three years on programs focused on reconciliation. Examples include mental health and addictions treatment centres, culturally-relevant programs for child care, develop an action plan for social emergencies and even creating a culturally-relevant Justice system to name a few.
While these programs have the opportunity to be beneficial and in need, it is not clear on the Government’s website what specifically Indigenous communities asked for. Yes, there was outreach to communities. Yes, interviews were recorded and I can only imagine many spoke to the need some of the programs are aimed toward.
But after reading the Province’s response, the overwhelming sentiment is the government feels forever indebted to Indigenous communities based on past historical wrongs. It is less clear if the programs and funding grants were created because of this sentiment of indebtedness, or actual need from community members. And if indeed these programs were based on the former rather than the latter, it is a strike against reconciliation for the simple fact that the very development and formulation of the was without the involvement, development and input from the very same people the funding was intended to help. As well, the Province does not mince words in the amount of funding or the different initiatives created. Interestingly enough, there is no mention in the official press release of the involvement of Indigenous communities in its actual development.
I have outlined above what I believe to be symptoms of a relationship the government is perpetuating with Indigenous peoples across Canada: the perception of reconciliation, but with a very heavy-handed approach. More policies, more programs, more legislations. More dependency. Fewer programs and policies are created symbiotically with communities and this is troubling. It is troubling because it is under the guise of reconciliation.
So here’s an idea: governments take a step back and stop the rhetoric. Stop the photo opportunities in communities and the political talking points. Stop discussing the issues Indigenous peoples face and deal with every day and using statistics on drinking water advisories, health outcomes, educational attainment and bias in the Justice system. Stop talking about the millions of dollars in investments, or the years of funding committed. Stop speaking in circles. Stop talking.
Do the arduous task of working tirelessly, to build and develop strategies that are reflective of what communities want. Don’t try to do too much too soon. Commit your bureaucrats to stay in positions for longer than a year so they too can build lasting relations with communities. Travel and absorb a community inside and out. Make friends along the way. Paddle down the river with communities. Don’t believe you can paddle for them or that you know what way is best.
Have the fortitude to openly state you do not have the answers and your government is committed to doing this tireless work to find them. Treat each community differently and stop generalizing on the needs of an entire people. Visit communities. Spend time in them. Work with community leaders to determine what is in their interest. Fund positions in communities that are well-paying to retain staff. Focus the reporting to be a balance of both quantitative and qualitative analysis. And never. Ever. Presume you have the answers.
Reconciliation is a work-in-progress with no end point. We have started, and there is still time to change course. But it requires us to change our minds first and get uncomfortable with not having the answers. Governments hate not having the answers to society’s ills.
[We cannot] perpetuate the paternalistic concept that only Aboriginal peoples are in need of healing…. The perpetrators are wounded and marked by history in ways that are different from the victims, but both groups require healing…. How can a conversation about reconciliation take place if all involved do not adopt an attitude of humility and respect? … We all have stories to tell and in order to grow in tolerance and understanding we must listen to the stories of others.